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After a long absence (about 28 years' worth), it has been great to return to Washington, DC and once again put on a DC firefighter's uniform. After I completed six years of service at Engine 10 in the 1970s, I had a wonderful opportunity to get out and see the "fire rescue service world," working for several different communities. That's right, I am the guy who's teased about not being able to keep a job; what a great set of experiences for me and my family.
In my absence, so much in DC has changed and so much has stayed the same. When I left our Nation's Capital, we had the Washington Senators Major League Baseball Club; now it is the Nationals. The fire department operated with a three-platoon system; now it has four shifts. Engine 10 was the busiest in the city, and it still is; now even more so. We saw a considerable number of fire deaths, and, unfortunately, we still suffer with losing 10 to 15 civilians every year to fire. There has to be a way to change this grim statistic and lower or eliminate our citizens and visitors from needlessly dying in their homes. This column will discuss an initiative that was launched in July 2007 in the Deanwood section of our city. The program is titled "SAVU," which is pronounced Save You and stands for Smoke Alarm Verification and Utilization, and will go a long way to curbing the fire deaths that we respond to each year. Perhaps this program can be implemented in your community and reduce harm, human suffering and loss of life.
Just a few days after returning to work at DCFD, we responded to a house fire on Minnesota Avenue, Southeast. The call came into our Office of Unified Communications at about 2 A.M., but the caller provided the wrong address. In fact, several more folks called in this raging blaze, giving the incorrect address several more times. As luck would have it, DCFD Engine 15's route of travel to the dispatched address went directly in front of the rowhouse that was burning. Thank goodness the response time was just under six minutes that night because the customers in that house would need all of the help that we could provide to avoid a very tragic outcome.
Upon arrival, Engine 15 provided a brief initial report that included the fact that people were trapped and requested a "working fire" assignment (which adds a sixth four-member engine, a third five-member ladder, another two-person command team and support units such as the air unit, fire investigations and the shift commander) to the alarm. As Engine 15 made the staircase with a 1½-inch handline to attack the fire and begin a primary search, one of the truck companies stood a portable ladder to help some of the family members down from a second-floor bedroom.
Several folks were assisted to the safety of their front yard and then into a waiting ambulance. As emergency medical care was being provided, it was learned that the 5-year-old daughter was not so fortunate and remained in her bedroom. The "interior attack group," led by Engine 15, discovered the little girl on the second floor, severely burned and lifeless, just minutes into this firefight. Tragically, the little girl would not survive this fire that consumed the top floor of her home.
It is difficult for firefighters to deal with any civilian fire deaths; however, it is even more disheartening to realize that the person who didn't make it was an innocent child. That being the case and an overwhelming need to do something about this situation, the concept of "SAVU" was developed and presented to the devastated neighborhood at a Sunday-afternoon press conference that included Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Council Chair Vincent Gray. The press conference was held on the front steps of the burned-out home where the precious little girl lost her life. It was well attended by the community and the media.